Soldiers of Misfortune

A report on the veterans of Vietnam—and on the often disgraceful treatment they have received from their countrymen.
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Gradually, the conversation drifted back to the war. Tyson said, "I still am patriotic. I think as far as the war is concerned, I want my family protected."

"They're not too protected," said Willie Davis.

"I would rather fight communism there than here," retorted Tyson.

"Oh, man, what you talking about?" said Davis. He proceeded to describe a recent shoot-out in a local Baptist church, which all of them had heard about.

Williams said, "You not safe at home, now."

"That war," said Davis. "All those people died for nothing."

"For nothing," Tyson agreed, shaking his head.

"We could have won it," said Davis.

Tyson nodded emphatically. "We could have won it! Easy!"

"But we weren't fighting for anything," said Davis. "The war was only a way of making money for the civilians."

"And to decrease the population of the United States," said Tyson, thoughtfully. Then he smiled. "But we had a cause. Yeah, stay alive."

"I don't know," said Davis. "It's just all fucked, up. To go over and risk your life and return to what you left. Unemployment. No money."

"No money," Tyson said.

"Not too much security," offered David Williams.

Tyson turned to me. "I think they owe me for the time that I gave my country, you know. Maybe it's a thing where they spent so much money training us in 'pecific fields, they should keep us well and healthy so we be ready to go the next time."

Willie Davis's most important problem was clear-cut: he had been badly wounded. But it was harder for Tyson and Williams to identify the time when things had started to go wrong. They had been led to believe that military service, especially duty in Vietnam, would carry them into the good life. They must have believed this passionately, because they still hadn't completely abandoned the dream

Looking toward the future, David Williams wondered if the skills he had learned in dismounted drill might not be of some use after all. He had been asked to march some high school ROTC cadets in Birmingham's last Veterans Day parade. "I really liked that," he said. "I would like to be an ROTC instructor in a high school, teach 'em how to march. I would be really good at that."

Marion Tyson, the former mortarman, clasped his hands and gazed across the room. "Yeah, you know," he said, "if I could be at the high school and teach 'em how to use that mortar, I could do that."

The GI Bill

The World War II GI Bill has been described as the most significant, salutary piece of American legislation since the Homestead Act. A gigantic federal scholarship program, it sent some 8 million World War II veterans to school. It cost $14.5 billion and is generally considered to have long since paid for itself. The Vietnam-era GI Bill has also been huge; it has already cost about $22 billion. And there is no question that it has been a boon for millions of "era" veterans and for many of the men who actually went to the war. Take the case of Louis Jones, from Hawaii. A burly forty-two-year-old former sergeant first class, Jones spent 18 years, 9 months, and one day in the Army, including five years as a medic in Vietnam. By the time the war was over, he had become an alcoholic and was unable to adjust to the peacetime, volunteer Army-he felt he was being forced to harass his troops unduly, and after seeing so many young men die in Vietnam he did not have the heart for that work anymore. Less than a year before he would have been eligible for his Army pension, he had to quit. His life was all ruins, until he realized that he qualified for the GI Bill. When I met him, he was working on his bachelor's degree at City College of San Francisco and was pulling down A's and B's. He was a happy man. "The more I'm in school the better my brain becomes," he told me. "I'm finding education really stimulating. I know it will help me realize my potential, however humble that may be."

But Jones's experience is by no means universal. The World War II GI Bill paid a veteran's tuition, whatever it was, and on top of that it gave him a monthly subsistence allowance. The Vietnam-era Bill provides just one flat monthly sum. This has effectively prevented all but the wealthy Vietnam veterans from attending expensive private institutions. Lump-sum payments favor veterans who come from states such as California where tuition rates at public institutions tend to be low. Veterans from the South and the West have used almost 50 percent more GI Bill money than their counterparts from the "high-tuition" states of the Midwest and the Northeast. Timing has also made a difference. The assistance Jones received in 1977 is at least vaguely in line with the benefits provided a World War II veteran. But in 1966, when President Johnson grudgingly signed the Vietnam-era GI Bill into law, benefits were pegged at a lower level in absolute dollars than they had been after the Korean War. From 1966 to 1974, in the years when the men who served in Vietnam needed education assistance most, the new GI Bill was clearly inadequate compared to the World War II one. Moreover, it was incompetently administered. Throughout the sixties and early seventies the VA grew famous for misplacing GI Bill checks. Some veterans had to drop out of school for lack of cash because their checks did not arrive in time. Just how many quit school for this or other reasons isn't known. The VA's PR men like to point out that 64 percent of all Vietnam-era veterans have used some part of forty-two months of GI Bill benefits, about 10 percent more than the World War II Bill attracted, but this seems a hollow boast, because the VA has no idea how many veterans have actually completed their courses study.

Most important, the GI Bill seems to have been little use to the men in greatest need of education and training. One can use the Bill to go to virtually any sort of school, including a large number with questionable credentials, but the schedule and level of payments favor the veteran who wants to go to college for four years and a great many of the men who fought in Vietnam don't fall into that category. As everyone knows, blacks and other minorities did a disproportionate share of the fighting in Vietnam. Throughout the war black enlisted men made up about 8 percent of the armed forces, yet they accounted for about 15 percent of American casualties. But it was both white and black men from low-income families who mainly carried the burden. Once in the service, men from this economic class were twice as likely to see combat as youths from middle and high-income families. Many of these youths believed as Tyson did, that service would be a ticket to sucsess. That is what Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said he had in mind when he lowered the intelligence standards for admission into the Army. The announced intention of this program was to give underprivileged, undereducated buys a chance to learn marketable skills. After all, said McNamara, the military was "the largest single educational complex that the world has ever possessed." But the program's actual effect was to keep the draft from touching college students, and a study conducted by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs shows that "marginally qualified" Vietnam-era soldiers were most likely to be trained not for truck-driving or electronics but for combat.

VA statistics suggest that more than 20 percent of Vietnam veterans went to war without a high school education, and it seems a good bet that most of them have not found a use for the GI Bill: by 1977, only 30 percent of the Vietnam-era veterans without a high school education had used any part of their GI Bill benefits. And, of course, there is no way of telling how many Vietnam veterans have been using the Bill, not primarily to go to school and learn a trade, but to get cash and keep themselves and their families in food.

How many of the high school dropouts who fought in Vietnam have found jobs? Again, the dearth of statistics makes it impossible to know for sure. The Department of Labor does keep statistics on unemployment among Vietnam-era veterans, and overall, those figures do not look bad. But they are based on the people who come to state employment offices looking for help, and many actual Vietnam veterans are unlikely to go near those places even if they need work. It is easy to understand why: in the third quarter of 1977 only 18.5 percent of the 1.8 million Vietnam-era veterans who went to state employment offices were placed in jobs. In general, emergency employment schemes have also failed. President Carter's well-publicized HIRE program has been only a little less successful than most. The program was supposed to place 100,000 veterans in private industry, but it seems almost designed for failure. Attempting to minimize paperwork and expenses, the program's architects limited the project not only to a tiny segment of private industry but also to those companies least likely to be interested in participating. The Department of Labor says HIRE is improving. It ought to. Congress appropriated $140 million, and after eight months the Department of Labor had found a use for only about $14 million; they had rounded up no more than 8500 job possibilities; and they were sure of having actually placed 136 veterans.

99 1/2 percent pure

Throughout South Vietnam, marijuana came pre-rolled and packaged in cellophane. In the grid square where I spent my year these fat joints were known as "Nuc Mao 100's" in honor of their length and of the nearby village where they were sold. Amphetamines were also plentiful. One infantryman remembers his platoon medic standing by the side of a trail at the bottom of a long steep hill handing out tablets of speed to each passing soldier. There was always morphine, of course: death-weary medics in particular seem to have found it beguiling. There was plain opium, too. But the heroin was remarkable. Remembering it in prison, a former Marine shook his head in awe. "Hell, man, when I came back to the world, I had a $250-a-day habit. This stuff was 99 1/2 percent pure, you understand. In Nam, man, all we had to do was put it in a spoon, put some water in, and banged it. I had to consume five times as much back here to even coast."

No one knows how many men adopted hard drugs during the war in Vietnam. I have met men who used opium and morphine and heroin there in the years before the 1968 Tet offensive, but the great rise in wartime addiction appears to have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. There is no telling how many of the soldiers who came back addicted would have benefited from professional help. The Vietnam vets whom I visited in jail wanted to think that it was the war that had made them heroin users. They said they had not been destined to be junkies. It is hard to judge such statements, but there was no doubting their remorse. The fact is that until about 1971, a returning soldier received little or no immediate assistance or guidance from the military or the VA, and that is a shame because the best time to try weaning a soldier from his drugs was immediately upon his return, before he found his way to the addict's lairs back home.

But, to the surprise of many, a heroin epidemic did not follow Vietnam. In 1971 the government instituted a program to detoxify addicted returning soldiers. This was an excellent occasion to study the nature of narcotic addiction, and Dr. Lee Robins of Washington University in St. Louis seized it. Among her most significant findings was the fact that while many soldiers (about one in five in her sample) had become addicted to narcotics there, the vast majority of them (some 88 percent) had chucked their habits and had not become readdicted three years later. These findings speak clearly of the rigors of the war and of the nature of the men who fought it. In the main, soldiers who used narcotics in Vietnam were not reprobates but, as a government study reports, "ordinary young men without any special readiness to adopt dangerous and illegal behavior."

A former Marine corpsman named Jack McCloskey, who lives in San Francisco, told me he remembered crying a great deal over comrades he was unable to save. Later, when he found he couldn't cry anymore, he took to morphine. He returned with fifty-six Syrettes of the stuff taped to his skin beneath his uniform, but he used up only half, then threw the rest into the waves off a San Francisco beach and flew back to his home in South Philadelphia, where friends got him a hotel room and ten days' supply of Robitussin AC cough syrup. Just like that, he got over it, he says, although he does remember morphine fondly sometimes. It is a common story from the war.

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